Office politics is always a hot topic – even though it is actually pretty hard to define. What if what seems to be “politics” actually is just a huge misunderstanding? – Let’s investigate how this can happen and what to do about it.
Back in 1997, when I first met Tim Berners-Lee, (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee)…
Some books about software engineering are timeless classics. Among them, written as early as 1975 and still unbelievably relevant, is “The Mythical Man-Month” by Fred Brooks.
The other day, a friend of mine recommended another TED-Video to me: “Daniel Pink on the surprising science of motivation” (~18 Minutes). I think everybody who’s into management and/or leadership should have seen it.
It’s clearly worth watching, because Daniel is a truly gifted speaker. Still, for the hurried reader, here are the core points as I picked them up. The main theme is
There’s a gap between what science knows and what business does.
What he’s referring to is the “candle problem“: A cognitive performance test dating back to 1945. This test and a range of other examples Daniel quotes clearly shows that “sticks and carrots” (aka incentive plans etc.) actually reduce performance in cognitive tasks.
Incentives do work for mechanical tasks (which were predominant through much of the 20th century). They do not work for cognitive tasks, which dominate the 21st century. That’s the gap Daniel is talking about, and I’d like to add that this especially applies to the business of software
While science knows for more than 60 years that a bonus plan, say, for managers, reduces effectiveness, businesses reach out to higher and higher incentives in the areas where they are known to work least. One could say: They don’t know better. How else to motivate people?
And Daniel has an answer to that question: Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery.
In the video, he goes on to explain purpose – the topic in its entirety is covered in Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Since then, I keep asking myself: Do you create a sense of purpose in the people you are working with?
Today, I had an interesting discussion about empowerment, especially in a weak matrix organization. Eventually, the discussion reminded me of the Obituary of Richard Neustadt, the adviser to several presidents ($) of the USA, in The Economist (November 2003). The central part is (quoted from memory):
“He’ll sit here,” he [Truman] said [about Eisenhower], drumming his fingers on the desk, “and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that! – and nothing is going to happen! – it won’t be a bit like in the army!”
Well… if this is the amount of empowerment the most powerful man on this planet can command – how could I as a project manager as a project manager ask for more?
I think that project management is a lot about convincing and only a little about “empowerment”, and this means that there are three potential problems:
- First, it so happens every once in a while that somebody confuses “empowerment” with “veto right”. Such cases are particularly frequent among so-called internal governance bodies. Yes, this is empowerment in a sense… but it’s “wrong-way-round”. Real empowerment is the power to make things happen, not the power to stop.
- Second, the power to influence or convince actually means that the project manager can build a “bridge” between the project member’s personal goals and the project goals. Clear, aligned, specific goals within the company are a fairly obvious prerequisite to make that work.
- Third (or actually “2b”), incompatibilities of interests between different organizations that contribute to a project obviously break the “empowerment” of the project manager.
Upon closer inspection, the so-called line managers are often not more empowered: They can’t fire (at least not in Germany), and at least now in the financial crisis, they may have only very little financial freedom like over salaries etc. Don’t tell anybody, though 🙂
Eventually, what it all boils down to is, provocatively exaggerated:
There is no empowerment!
There is dis-empowerment.
There is an illusion of empowerment, and a good project manager knows how to sustain that.